Conflict in the workplace: What you can do to survive

2013-08-25T13:28:00Z Conflict in the workplace: What you can do to surviveBy Christine Bryant Times Correspondent
August 25, 2013 1:28 pm  • 

Chances are you've worked with one.

Difficult coworkers are common - so common that some classes and workshops focus solely on conflict resolution in the workplace.

Experiencing an uncomfortable situation with someone you work with can be stressful - even negatively affecting your health.

Experts say there are several steps you can take, however, to manage a conflict between you and a coworker.

Avoid the problem

There are some conflicts where it's best to simply walk away, said Charles Hobson, a professor in the School of Business and Economics at Indiana University Northwest.

Hobson, who teaches classes and workshops on conflict resolution and management, says if the issue at hand isn't important or you are in a no-win position, it's best to avoid the problem altogether.

Most often, religion or politics can be polarizing and produce heated discussions - sometimes bringing out the worst in people.

"We just generally recommend you stay away from these types of conversations in the workplace," Hobson said.

Approach the person

In some situations, difficult people have no idea they're being difficult.

"So many people's personalities are different that they might not even realize they are coming across abrasive," said Donna Wimmer, human resources director at Franciscan St. Anthony Health.

Wimmer recommends having a conversation with a fellow employee if that person seems put off by your actions.

"Let them know, 'You might not realize it, but when you're talking to me you seem upset. Is there something I did or something we can do to fix this?'" she said.

Hear the other person out, said Michelle Steuer, assistant vice president of Human Resources at Centier Bank.

"You always want to be respectful and hear the other party out, just as you would want the same of them," she said. "It's OK not to agree on everything at all times, but it's important to work together and have a professional environment."

Seek help from a manager

If you don't feel comfortable speaking with the coworker or the problem has escalated, seek help from a manager, Steuer said.

"If (your manager) doesn't know or understand the situation, then they can't help you or the other associate with whom there is difficulty," she said. "Your manager is there to help you and listen to both sides. This will allow you all to work together and figure out a solution that works best for everyone."

If this is an ongoing problem, Wimmer recommends keeping a record of incidents.

"Before they go to their manager, I always recommend to make note of or be able to describe dates and times the behavior took place, whether there were any coworkers present and to describe the behavior," she said. "So many times an employee can come to me and say so and so is being mean to me. Describe the behavior - did she roll her eyes? Shake her finger? Being mean can mean a lot of different things to different people."

If direct supervisors are unable to resolve the problem, Wimmer said human resources will then step in - often with a correction action policy that is in place, or if the situation is more serious, a disciplinary process.

Stay professional

Don't gossip with others about an associate you're having a disagreement with, and don't let clients see negativity, Steuer said.

"You always want to maintain professionalism and not allow the situation affect other peers," she said.

Hobson said people can be difficult for a variety of reasons, but that all behaviors are a function of heredity and environment.

"Some people are just born with a predisposition of behaving that way and there's nothing you can do about it," he said. "All you can do is try to cope."

In fact, he said some characteristics of a difficult person can be embraced if the person's actions are non-threatening.

For example, a negativist - someone who only looks at what can go wrong in situations - can actually be an asset in a group setting.

That person, he said, will never allow groups to rush forward with hasty decisions, and can be a great soundboard when considering how an action could turn negative.

"Don't try to change them," Hobson said. "Try to work with them and utilize their skill set in the work place."

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